Saturday, April 30, 2011


The first week Z was home we both cried a lot. Besides jetlag and exhaustion, one frequent source of my tears was the awkwardness and pain of loving a child who didn't yet love me back. While giving Z his nightly bottle I would pause my singing to whisper to him in Amharic and English, "Ewedehalo, Mommy loves you." My affections were met with scowls and screeches, which would escalate into a full-blown tantrum if I kept it up. So I'd pick up the song where I left off, warm tears sliding down my cheeks and dropping onto his coarse brown curls.

Eventually I stuck to singing at bedtime and saved my "I love yous" for other times. Soon enough he warmed up to the phrase and within a few weeks he was saying it back to us and his brothers. Tears again, but happy ones this time.

Tonight as I sang to him, I realized that although Z had learned to say "I love you" in English, I hadn't tried saying it to him in Amharic since those first couple of weeks. I stopped singing, bent close to him and whispered it, Ewedehalo. He looked up at me, but didn't scowl or whine. I said it again. Ewedehalo. A smile slowly crept across his face. Ewedehalo. He was grinning. Ewedehalo. Happily nodding, giggling, looking right into my eyes. Ewedehalo. Ewedehalo. Ewedehalo. Over and over and over I said it to him, making up for the lost days and weeks and months. Rivers of tears spilled down and prayers of joyful thanksgiving rose up, praising the God who loved us first so that we could love each other. Ewedehalo, my sweet boy.

Z & me signing "I love you," this was the night he said it for the first time.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


N & Mommy

J charging a wave

Before we had kids we loved to go surfing together. We lived in LA and we'd go as often as we could, to the local beach before work or down to Orange County on the weekend. Surfing is one of those things that is really fun once you get the hang of it, but pretty brutal in the meantime. There's a steep learning curve, and you're gonna go 'over the falls' (surfer lingo for getting tossed upside down in a wave) a few times. But the feeling you get when you find your footing and cruise down the face of a wave for the first time... it's indescribable, and makes every lungful of saltwater worth it.

We are learning to surf again. Not in the break at Redondo Beach, but on the unpredictable and exhilarating waves of life with a newly-adopted toddler. The number one rule of surfing is always respect the ocean. Don't turn your back on it, don't get complacent, don't think you know what's coming next. The ocean we must respect these days is our son's healing heart. Though we are novices in these waters and have gone over the falls a few times, we are starting to get our bearings. Here are a few strategies that have helped me catch some waves this week...

When Z is in a funk, or mad at me for imposing a limit on him (I don't let him play with knives, I am so mean!), it can be very hard to bring him out of the bad mood. One thing that works almost without fail is playful movement - especially the kind of movement that activates the vestibular and proprioceptive senses. Tossing him in the air, rolling him in a blanket like a burrito, swinging him backwards and forwards between my legs, flipping him upside down, spinning him around, are all ways to do this and he loves them all. A few minutes of these activities and he will go from scowling and throwing stuff at me to giggling and smiling into my eyes! There are some moods that are immune even to this, but 9 times out of 10 it does the trick.

Pretend & Role Play
Another strategy that has helped me connect with Z in the tough moments is using stuffed toys as a sort of 'intermediary' between us to help bridge the gap. He gets mad at me (or maybe just mad). I don't like it, but I am learning to accept it as a normal part of our journey together. When he is mad, he won't make eye contact, he won't give or accept affection, he won't engage with me in play or respond when I talk to him (unless you count angry grunts or screams, which I don't). Using a stuffed animal has helped us to reconnect in a few ways. I can use the stuffed animal to model appropriate behavior to Z (i.e. giving and receiving affection, gentle touch, interactive play). I can also allow Z to interact with me through the toy -- even when he is unwilling to interact with me directly, he will often still indirectly engage with me by making the animal give me kisses or play with me. I can then slowly transition from interacting with the toy to interacting with him as he is ready and comfortable.

That's all I have time for today -- my little surfer dudes are up from their naps and the waves are rolling in... surf's up!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

building continuity: the three-photo story

Since we got home with Z (8 weeks on Monday!) I have been slowly working my way through the book "Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child" by Patty Cogen. So far I have found it to be a hugely helpful resource and I highly recommend it to other adoptive and soon-to-be-adoptive families.

One of the suggestions we have implemented from the book is called a Three-Photo Story. In the course of her work with international adoptees, Cogen found that developing an integrated sense of self was often a challenge for them. The instability of their early lives sometimes caused children to remain in an alert state even years after their adoption, wondering when the next transition would happen and they would lose everything all over again. The Three-Photo Story is a way to help children establish a coherent time-line of their lives and make sense of what has happened to them, fostering a sense of security and self-confidence.

So, what is a Three-Photo Story? I'm glad you asked! It is three pictures printed on the same sheet side-by-side. Picture 1 is the earliest picture you have of your child, or a picture with his or her first caregiver. Picture 2 is of your child's transition from his or her most recent caregiver into your care (i.e. a photo of you, your spouse, your child, and the caregiver on the day you took custody of your child). Picture 3 is of your child with his whole adoptive family.

We put this together for Z about a month ago, printed up lots of copies, and stashed them in some of his usual haunts (his toy basket, his bookshelf, the coffee table, etc). It has been so interesting to watch his reactions to the pictures over the last month. The first time he saw it, he kissed everyone in the pictures. The first time he said his own name was while looking at it. He can now point to each person and correctly label them. Sometimes he crumples it up and throws it away. Sometimes he asks for it and carries it around the house with him. Sometimes he'll sit on my lap and let me tell him his story while I point to the pictures. Sometimes I show it to him and he pushes it away.

All of these reactions gives us glimpses into how Z is processing the events of his own life. We plan to keep them around for many years, updating Picture 3 as needed. Hopefully they will provide a touch-point for him as he continues to process and grows into the person God made him to be.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

good company

I've said this before, but it bears repeating: one of the best surprises of this adoption process has been the amazing people we have met along the way. I love knowing that Z will grow up with many other boys and girls who will share his experience of being an Ethiopian adoptee, and we certainly benefit from connecting with other adoptive parents.

One of these precious families just recently returned home from their first trip, where they attended a court hearing and were officially named as the PARENTS of an absolutely gorgeous little girl. We are so thrilled for them! Last night we brought dinner over to their house and shared stories as our children played together. There are 4 boys between our two families -- can't wait to see a girl in the mix soon!

Z and C are the same age and up to all the same tricks!

Don't mind Nathan's tiny chair...

And as if I didn't love her enough already, this morning Melissa's blog post absolutely blew me away. Click here to read a well-written, well-thought-out, and just plain awesome post that summarizes her new-found perspective on Ethiopian adoption. It makes me want to poke the person next to me and say, "Hey, I know her!" So thankful God has given us such great companions on this road.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

it's good for bonding! unless it's not.

As we approach the two-month mark with our sweet boy, I am taking a moment to reflect on what we have learned together. We have learned way more than I have time to blog about right now, but I'll share one quick thing that might be helpful to those on the road with us...

Of course the big focus in this first season is bonding and connecting with Z. In addition to our training and educational home study visits, we also read lots of books, blogs, and articles about connecting with a newly-adopted child. All of this has proved to be immensely helpful to us, and I think the bonding process is going great - better than I would have hoped or expected, in fact. But here's what I'm learning: activities that are supposed to promote bonding are not "one-size-fits-all." Some of them just plain don't work for us, and forcing my child (and myself) to do them doesn't do us any good.

Here's an example. Knowing that mealtime = bonding time, I often chose foods for Z that a) I knew he liked (which meant not always what the rest of the family was eating), and b) I could feed to him. According to adoption literature, feeding by hand helps create a sense of dependence and trust between parent and child, and helps them understand that the parent is the source of food and nourishment, as well as comfort and pleasure. Sounds good! Except sometimes it wasn't. Z did let me feed him sometimes, but other times would refuse to take a single bite from me. More often than not, this led to his meals ending prematurely because he would get madder and madder and eventually escalate into throwing, screaming, etc. Not exactly bonding. I was getting pretty frustrated until we had a breakthrough at breakfast the other day. Before I had gotten him any food he signed "cereal" and pointed to his brothers, who were both eating cereal and milk. I gave him exactly what they had, and decided to let him try eating it with a spoon. He grinned at me, as if to say, "Now you're getting it Mom!" He needed lots of help getting the cereal on the spoon, so I helped him with each bite and gave him a high five every time he got the spoon and cereal to his mouth without dropping it. Not only did he eat tons of cereal, he made lots of eye contact and let me help him throughout the meal -- we were connecting with each other the whole time. I also think it made him feel more like a part of the family to eat the same thing as his brothers. If I had rigidly stuck to my plan of feeding by hand, I'm not sure he would have eaten a single bite of breakfast and I know we wouldn't have had such special moments of connection together.

I am a by-the-book person. Flexibility is not my strong suit. But Z is helping me learn that my job is not to do everything the book says to do: my job is to be the best mom for him. That means listening, observing, being sensitive, and using his cues to help me discern what is best for him in any given situation. Sometimes it means laying down the law and sticking to my guns. Sometimes it means laying down my pride and letting something go when it's not working. Here's hoping I can figure out which is which!

[P.S. Since that breakfast, I have been giving Z exactly what everyone else eats and letting him eat it with utensils and lots of help from me. He is eating way more than before and we are all happier at mealtime!]

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Z is two today! We couldn't be happier to have him home for this special day.

He's rockin' a sweet new blue cast for the occasion.

We celebrated with a few family members tonight and he had a blast blowing out the candles over and over as quickly as I could light them. Too funny - I am thinking he has seen candles before (lots of power outages in Ethiopia)!

Happy birthday sweet boy!

Monday, April 11, 2011

6 week check-up

Six weeks ago today we stepped off a plane and became a family of five.

If I had given birth six weeks ago, today is the day when I would have gone into the doctor for the postpartum check up. Which means that today is the day when we could resume... ahem, certain activities that would potentially lead to another bundle of joy. So... in adoption terms, does that mean today is the day we can resume activities that would lead to another Ethiopian kiddo??

Just asking...

playing outside today

Saturday, April 9, 2011

no substitution

We are so, so thankful every day for the amazing care that Z received before he came to us. He was well-fed, he was cleaned, he was held, he was spoken to, he was seen by a doctor regularly: he was in great hands. I think it is safe to say that, in terms of orphanage care, Z's was just about as good as it gets.

And yet, now that he is settling into his new life with us, it is so abundantly clear that there is absolutely no substitution for family. Watching him giggle as his brothers bury him in pillows, seeing his face light up when I come in the room after naptime, hearing his language and communication explode, feeling his little heart begin to trust us and let down his guard... all of these little moments knit us together and impress upon me the undeniable truth: children belong in families.

It's not that I doubted this fact before, but now I know know, you know? No matter how loving the staff, no matter how well-appointed the facility, no matter how consistent the care... an institution simply cannot replace a family. Period.

There is a lot of rhetoric out there about international adoption [understatement of the year]. Some people believe that children should be kept in their countries of origin at (almost) any cost. On an intellectual level, I understand the concept that children who have already lost their biological families should not have to lose their culture, language, and people group too. On a practical level, however, it breaks down. Institutionalization itself often strips children of the culture and even language of their birth families before adoption enters the equation. But far more importantly, regardless of culture, race, or language, children thrive in families. I know because I am watching it happen, and it is amazing.


1. That last paragraph is a few muddled sentences on a subject that deserves a big thick text book. Forgive me.

2. Of course the best thing for children is that they don't ever find themselves in the tragic circumstances that typically precede institutionalization and/or adoption. We have to keep working for that first, which is why I love love LOVE our agency, YWAM Ethiopia.

3. I am not at all saying that race, culture, language, etc don't matter -- they DO. I think it is critical that adoptive families find ways to authentically incorporate these elements into our family life as part of helping our children form an integrated self-concept and identity. That being said, culture - especially within an institution - is no substitute for family.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

in which i cry over spilled medicine

This morning I had a major mama melt-down. It was over the smallest thing (isn't it always?), but my reaction was so dizzyingly disproportionate that I was forced to stop and think about where all the tears and frustration were really coming from.

The trigger event was giving Z one of his two twice-daily meds. One of the meds is easy, one is hard. Giving him the harder one can sometimes require pinning his arms over his head, plugging his nose, squirting the medicine into his mouth and squeezing his lips closed until he swallows. Yes, good times. And this morning I was not quick enough with the lip-squeezing and he managed to spit out a whole dose before I could stop him.

This has happened before and it is really not a big deal. We wipe it up, we give him a break, we try again later. But for whatever reason, today it just broke me down. I hate it -- I hate restraining him and giving him something he doesn't want, which of course is natural and understandable. But the raw power of the emotions I was feeling told me there was more going on. Why did such a small thing make me feel so shattered?

It took me a few minutes, but then the pieces of the puzzle slid into place and I understood. It wasn't about the medicine. It was about adoption and trauma and fear and me and my son. Holding his arms, knowing he doesn't understand, forcing something on him that he doesn't want but unarguably needs... it is all too familiar. Z doesn't understand his adoption and the events that led up to it any more than he understands why he needs to take medicine. He does not think to himself, "Well sure, this is difficult now, but it will be best in the long run." All he knows is that something decidedly unpleasant is happening and I'm the one making it happen. When he spit out that medicine, it uncovered my deepest fear as an adoptive parent: that despite my good intentions and love for him, he will reject me, reject his adoption, spit us out like bad-tasting medicine. And now at least the torrent of tears makes sense.

This fear is real and it is normal, but it is not based on truth. The truth is that, although there may have been and may continue to be parts of Z's adoption that he experiences as traumatic, it is mostly not trauma. Right now it is mostly tickles and warm milk and peek-a-boo. Right now we are seeing signs left and right that he is not rejecting us, but falling in love with us and with his new life. He is soaking up the love and affection and devotion of his mom and dad and brothers like a happy little sponge. Yes, there is trauma and loss, and it is critical to his development that we acknowledge that and help him process it. But ultimately we are not holding down his arms and plugging his nose, and thanks be to God, he is most definitely not spitting us out.